Isolation, transportation top challenges to rural health care access

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STOCKBRIDGE — In a rural place where the miles to town are many and the winters are often hard, the elderly and the poor suffer in all the usual ways, and then some.

"The seniors are just stuck in the snow. Even if they can drive, they go weeks on end without any human contact," said Jeanne Bachetti, a Great Barrington resident who had come to a Rural Health Network meeting last week in Stockbridge to weigh in on what is needed to catch South Berkshire County residents who might not be getting the health care or services they need.

Isolation is one condition the grant-funded Rural Health Network wants to change by scouring the area for resources and looking for community input on how to get people connected.

"We're here to see how we can make life and health more manageable for people," said Network Coordinator Deborah Phillips, who held this second community meeting.

Phillips and Director Deb Coons established the network with a $100,000 federal planning grant written and received through Fairview Hospital. With numerous health care and community partners both Coons and Phillips want to create a web of connections to resources that will address the challenges of rural life, where the limping economy takes a heavy toll.

"There's more poverty in these hills than many people are willing to acknowledge," Phillips said. "We live in an area where it's hard to make a living, so people work hard, and that makes them stressed."

The grant targeted the 13 South County towns because they are the most rural in the Berkshires, Phillips said, noting that the lines may be loosened at some point to possibly include Becket and other nearby towns.

About 25 people came to the meeting and soon split up into brainstorming groups of four, from which at the end, the information was harvested and ideas were culled.

Tess Lane is a counselor/advocate for The Elizabeth Freeman Center. She told her group she has seen the "specific barriers to living in a rural area," and that there are, for instance very long wait-lists for the center's clients who need mental health services.

Harriette Joffe, 83, is a Great Barrington resident who said while she can still drive, she can't do it at night.

"Life would change for me if there were transportation."

But Joffe said that her physician had taken on an advocacy role for her, hooking her up with other services she needs. She said it is this kind advocacy that could shift the struggles of elders and others.

Adrien Conklin is a nurse at Fairview who serves as just such an advocate by coordinating services for patients there and at Macony Pediatrics.

"I'm trying to challenge the role of what people think a regular nurse does," she said.

Conklin also said health is not just about going to the doctor, and that transportation is key to staying connected, especially for seniors.

"It's also to go to the hairdresser, and [other] programs. It's social transport."

"Isolation is real," said Jack McKelvey, a retired bishop. "I work with a woman whose husband died. She didn't get out, and over a three week period the woman began to literally lose her mind."

He said it was connections and help that brought her back from a serious mental health episode, he said.

"It was a terrible winter," Joffe said after McKelvey told that story.

Several people spoke of aging-in-place initiatives that are gaining traction in the Berkshires, but wondered how to collect and spread information for seniors.

This is important. Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Data shows that by 2030, most areas in the Berkshires will have 60 percent of residents at age 50 and older.

There was agreement that what would help seniors and everyone else is a comprehensive directory of services that could be frequently updated.

"South Berkshire County is one of those places that if you're lucky enough to be in front of the right person, that person would go to any length to get you what you need," said Ilana Siegel, who owns LifeWorks Studio in Great Barrington. "But it's a place where things are uniquely unfair, because of the discrepancy in connections.

"It should be that it is for everyone, under any circumstances."

Phillips encouraged people fill out the network's survey at berkshirehealthsystems.org/rural-health-network.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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